Transcript of newspaper article by Fred Hammerton dated 10th October 1988.
Refugee Karel discovers his island paradise.
The first time Karel Machacek saw Canvey more than 40 years ago, he said to himself: ‘This is the last place in the world I would like to live in’. But 6 years later, Karel, who had escaped the Nazis when his native Czechoslovakia was invaded, joined a doctor’s practice on the island and has lived there ever since. He loves the place. Now 72 he says with obvious affection about the people:’They are a marvellous bunch. Very warm’. Looking after 17,500 in a Canvey doctor’s practice could not be further from the early life experienced by the young Czech.
Now Dr Machacek has told his story in a book ‘Escape to England’. He writes with emotion in the preface: ‘I came as a fugitive from a foreign land to a new country, new environment and a new community of people with whom I have shared over many years common interests and aspirations. I have acquired their identity. Their ideals are my ideals, their desires my desires, their loyalties became my loyalties and their passionate love of freedom has always been mine as well. I became called ‘one of us’ – and very proud of it.
Woods and meadows, hills and rivers as idolised in the words of the Czech National Anthem can provide a frame, but cannot create a home. Only people can do this. without freedom and tolerance, compassion and mutual respect a home loses its meaning and a country becomes a prison.
Castle Point Tory MP Sir Bernard Braine was one of those on the doctor’s books. He writes: ‘Like tens of thousands of other Central and Eastern Europeans Karel Machacek was driven out of his homeland by Nazi invasion and brutality, escaped to the West, fought with the Allies, and then, when victory came to the rest of us, he returned home only to find his people under the heel of new tyrants and was forced to flee a second time. It is a poignant story and yet one which renews one’s faith in the capacity of human beings to ride above misfortune and to find a way of leading a full and useful life. To be forced to leave one’s homeland and loved ones is sad enough, but to have to face such an experience twice is tragic. To be able to start anew in a foreign land and to become a respected and much loved personality is a triumph.
Yet that is what happened. In 1950 Jiri Lintner came to Canvey Island in my constituency as a doctor and subsequently invited Karel, and later Premek Sonnek, to join his medical practice. For the 3 exiles there followed some 35 years of devoted to the people of Canvey. Together we went through the agony of the great flood disaster in 1953 when the island was the worst affected aea of all eastern England. More than most I can testify to the skill and dedication they brought to the care of their patients and the affection they evoked from all who were privileged to know them. Truly, each became ‘one of us’. I know. One became my family doctor. All are my dear friends.
On March 14, 1939 Karel was listening at midnight to his radio, complete with earphones. He was in bed at his college , Kaunic. It was announced that German forces had crossed the borders. Karel buried his head in the pillow and wept. The following day German steel helmets could be seen in abundance. The young university student probably escaped arrest because he and his colleague Frank Miller play acted when the Gestapo questioned them. As vice president of the students’ union he would have been a prime target for the Nazis. Nine student leaders has already been executed and others arrested.When the Gestapo came to their room in the university Karel and Frank stood up next to each other. Karel answered his questions with a slight German staccato accent. It did the trick. when he decided to leave his homeland Karel writes:’ I had to convince myself that I had enough courage to do it – it is one thing to talk and dream of heroism and another to face stark facts.’ Being an ‘outlaw’ had this affect on Karel: ‘You keep away from people, you think that everybody is looking at you and when they do, you think they know all about you or at least suspect. The sight of anybody in uniform frightens you’.
A Jewish family hid Karel in Budapest, Hungary and he continued his freedom dash through Yugoslavia and on to Greece, Beirut, Syria and the Lebanon and on to France. There was wonderful news for Karel in France. The British were going to evacuate. Karel writes:’ But what were the English like? What were they like at home? Not many people had been to England and those that had had not been able to describe very well as it was too complex’.
On July 7 1940 Karel arrived in Liverpool. The refugees boarded a special train. ‘We did not know where we were being taken but were very happy to leave it to those who knew. Then the train left the town and we were in the countryside. We watched, with great interest the scenery, the shades of green, the variety of trees and fields where cattle grazed, the woods and the meadows and the carefully maintained roads and houses with gardens full of colour. It was a feast for our eyes.’ He writes: ‘So this was England – and we began to fall in love with it from day one’.
His other love he found in Sheffield. She is now his wife Betty. They have lived happily on Canvey, bringing up three sons.